Champions League: Collapse against Liverpool exposes harsh Barcelona realities
The Catalan giants were favorites to proceed to the final as they had won the first leg 3-0 and restricted the Merseyside club from scoring an away goal. The success of the first leg was majorly fueled by Lionel Messi's masterful performance as he scored a brace that included a spectacular free-kick.
Having won the league title, Barcelona fielded an inexperienced team dominated by La Masia players over the weekend against Celta Vigo. The game ended in a 2-0 loss for the Catalan club, but the squad rotation by Ernesto Valverde was well appreciated as it provided the players with ample rest to prepare for the all-important midweek fixture against Liverpool.
Liverpool on their part had a crucial away game against Newcastle United over the weekend and they secured a narrow 3-2 victory. But Mohamed Salah sustained a head injury in the game and was ruled out of the midweek tie against Barcelona.
This came as a huge blow to the Merseyside club, who were already without their first choice striker Roberto Firmino and had the Herculean task of overturning a three-goal deficit.
Jurgen Klopp's men looked full of confidence in the starting minutes of the game and were rewarded for it as Divock Origi scored the opener in the 7th minute and kick-started Liverpool's comeback trail. Barcelona had half-chances in the remaining first half but failed to capitalize on them and were a goal down at the half-way mark.
The second half saw Georginio Wijnaldum coming in for an injured Andrew Robertson. The Dutch midfielder got into the action almost immediately as he scored a quick brace to restore parity.
At this point, Barcelona's elimination seemed inevitable as they looked completely clueless and had no answers to Liverpool's high pressing. Trent Alexander-Arnold's cheeky corner kick in the 79th minute caught the Barcelona defense napping as Origi successfully put the ball in the back of the net to complete an epic comeback.
In the remaining time Barcelona frantically looked for the elusive away goal but Liverpool's defense proved to be too strong. For a second consecutive year Barcelona had squandered a three-goal first leg advantage and bowed out of the elite European tournament - just as they did against AS Roma last season.
The players and manager received plenty of flak for the disastrous performance, and rightly so. However, this defeat may prove to be a much-required wake-up call for the Catalan club that has failed to perform at the European stage for four seasons, all the while looking like a dominant force in Spain.
Valverde's tactical failure exposed
Ernesto Valverde has time and again proved that he succumbs under pressure and has no answers when it comes to playing against high pressing teams. His tactics only work when the opponent sits back and allows Barcelona to make frequent attacking moves.
Valverde was exposed against Roma last season too, but it was believed that fatigue had played a huge role in that game.
Barcelona's domestic success this season is largely down to the catastrophe at Real Madrid, as they never got their season up and running. The Catalan club were never really challenged this season domestically as they held the pole position since Match-day 14 and won the league title with three games to go.
Valverde won the league for the second season running, and was being hailed as a remarkable manager who could guide Barcelona to a historic third continental treble. This illusion created in domestic competitions hid his shortcomings when it came to crucial away games in the Champions League.
The away game against Olympique Lyonnais in the Round of 16 saw Barcelona registering 25 shots of which only five were on target. The match ended as a goalless draw. The Catalan club were, however, able to put up a strong performance at Camp Nou; they hammered the French side 5-1 in the second leg.
The away game against Manchester United at the quarterfinal stage also saw a lackluster performance as Barcelona narrowly edged past United courtesy of an own goal by Luke Shaw.
There were evident signs that Barcelona would struggle against a more tactical team away from home. However, a resounding 3-0 victory at Camp Nou against Liverpool once again covered Barcelona's poor away form and Valverde yet again resorted to a conservative approach in the second leg against the Merseyside club.
In the end, that cost the Blaugrana a place in the Champions League final.
Valverde might have lost only 11 games in his first two seasons in-charge of the Catalan club, but his win percentage is at 68.97% - which is below par when compared to other remarkable Barcelona managers in recent times. Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique had a win percentage of 72.5% and 75% respectively.
Unreal expectations from Lionel Messi
Since the beginning of the 2017-18 season, Barcelona have signed players like Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho and Malcom. These players were supposed to strengthen the attacking front, yet it's the Argentine talisman who bails Barcelona out week in, week out.
Dembele has struggled with injuries ever since he joined the Catalan club and hasn't been able to perform as per expectations. Coutinho has been a huge let-down at Barcelona, while Malcom has struggled to get enough playing time. Luis Suarez also looks uninspired as he has scored just two goals in his last 20 European appearances.
The entire responsibility of carrying the team falls on the 31-year-old Argentine, who keeps the team's hopes high. But on a day when he fails to deliver, the entire team suffers.
Messi is currently the top goalscorer in both LaLiga and Champions League, but will once again fail to get his hands on the coveted Champions League trophy.
In order to become an unstoppable force in Europe, Barcelona need a squad that doesn't rely on Messi's mastery every time the team steps onto the pitch. This loss against Liverpool has given the Blaugrana a much-needed wake-up call, as the top brass will now ponder a possible managerial change.
The fans would hope that they appoint a manager who can reinstate Barcelona's playing philosophy and ensure Messi is not the only one bailing the club out.